If someone really wanted to make mischief, they could point to children’s Services as a reason why the County Council needs committees – because it has an unsatisfactory OFSTED report hanging over it; they would be wrong and absolutely mischievous to do so though. Children’s Services is in a good place in Cambridgeshire with huge leaps and bounds having been made in the last few years.
The OFSTED report (two years ago now) came about for two reasons – one because of a high number of agency social workers in one team, which the Council had already addressed prior to OFSTED visiting and because of IT issues. The truth is the widely held view outside of the County was that the judgement by OFSTED was harsh but, in typical fashion, the County Council chose to take it on the chin and use it positively instead of fighting against it (and we could have challenged it). Certainly on my visits to Social Workers before I handed over leadership of the Council, the IT problem had become less and less of an issue. There are still huge leaps and bounds to be made around IT and social work, but they revolve around sharing of data with the wider public sector in order to better raise awareness of the vulnerable children’s circumstances – and that is a National issue, not a Cambridgeshire one.
We have not been afraid to be bold in Cambridgeshire, a few years ago we began a move to a different model of managing social work (known as the Unit Model) and it has been a huge success, not least because the structure allows for sharing of knowledge around casework. I sat in on a weekly meeting of social workers where this was happening and it was incredibly powerful.
The big danger with Social Care in the County is around political responsibility for safeguarding. The law requires that Councils who have responsibility for Children’s Social Care must have a politician designated as Lead member for Children. In the past this has been the Cabinet Member – and in that role he has taken political responsibility for the safety of our children, liaising with outside bodies, with the Chair of the Local Safeguarding Children’s board etc. that person is also the politician whose neck is on the line if safeguarding procedures fail. Under a committee system you could argue that this is the role of the Chairman of the Children’s committee – but is it? How can someone take personal responsibility for safeguarding when they have no executive authority? If there are issues, it would be difficult to hold them personally to account when they are only allowed to act on the will of the committee. The public would absolutely want clear accountability if the system failed, what they will get is a cloudy and unclear response - it will come across as politicians dodging accountability rather than taking responsibility. More importantly, that personal accountability really sharpens the mind and thinking of the Lead Member for Children – the lack of it has the potential to have the opposite effect.
Luckily, Cambridgeshire has the professional leadership that will ensure this does not become an issue – but that is now, what about in two, three years time as personalities change? I have still not seen anything that assures me this has been thought of in the transition to committees. Understanding and dealing with this so that the drive and innovation continues is something I believe the new Children’s committee will have to look at urgently.
Let me be clear, it is a sad fact that any Local Authority that is dealing with vulnerable children will face circumstances where awful things happen. That in itself should not be a reason for a witch-hunt, it is the underlying reasons for those awful events that matter. When I was Lead Member for children, Cambridgeshire had a number of child deaths, they are horrible to deal with – but there were two aspects that were important to me – the first is to find out why something happened, the second is to make sure that if there are lessons to be learned, they should be. One benefit we had in Cambridgeshire, to be fair, was political opposition that took a responsible attitude – that must continue.
Child deaths and serious incidents involving children are horrible to deal with. I can remember, even as Leader of the Council, receiving a telephone call about such an incident and being in tears when I put the phone down. That is one of the reasons that Children’s Social Workers are probably the profession I admire the most. They are a great, hugely conscientious group who take on massive responsibilities. I wish the public and the media would admire social workers more